Nov 11, 2015
Africa's Dictators Fight Back

At the end of the Cold War in 1991, it seemed the era of the African dictator was coming to an end. With the fall of the Soviet Union there was one Superpower left to dominate the world, and this one now did not approve of extended stays in office. Its own Constitution permitted its leader only two four-year terms. In earlier years the African situation had been different. In the sixties, many of the newly independent African states lined up behind one or other of the two superpowers, the Soviet Union and the USA. Many imposed one-party regimes along the lines of the Communist bloc. But the one-party states did not automatically fall into the Soviet camp. Some, such as Ethiopia, Ivory Coast and Kenya were supported by the West. Autocratic leaders settled down for extended stays in office with little semblance of genuine multi-party democracy. African rulers became adept at playing one side against the other in the superpower rivalry between the USA and Soviet Union. When challenged over their prolonged stays in office, Independence leaders like Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda, and Felix Houphouet-Boigny of Ivory CoastHouphuoet-Boigny could always point to similarly longstanding leaders in the Communist bloc, like Ceacescu, Tito and Castro. Starting from the mid-eighties, many of these leaders succumbed either to age, failure of the state or to the effects of the end of the Cold War in 1991 and renewed democratic activism. A breath of fresh air swept through Africa and democrats hoped for genuine pluralism across the continent. Julius Nyerere in Tanzania stepped down as head of a one-party state in 1985, after 21 years in power. In Zambia Kenneth Kaunda (in power from 1964, for most of the time in a one-party state) was beaten in multi-party elections in 1991. Contested presidential elections were first held there in 1995. In Sierra Leone the one-party APC regime was overthrown in a coup in 1992 after 25 years in power. Dennis Sasso Nguesso was defeated in multi-party elections in Congo Brazzaville in 1992 after 12 years as head of a one-party state. Houphouet-Boigny in Ivory Coast died in office in 1993 after 33 years in power. Dauda Jawara in Gambia, in power for 32 years, was overthrown in a military coup in 1994. Mobutu in Congo Kinshasa was in power for 31 years before being overthrown in a military coup in 1997. In Kenya, Daniel Arap Moi, having served the two-term maximum allowed under the 1992 multi-party system stepped down in 2002 after 24 years in power.

As these long-time autocrats left office there was genuine hope that Africa would shake off the dictatorship that had dogged the continent since Independence. For many years thereafter, the democrats seemed to be in the ascendancy and the dictators on the retreat, perhaps irretrievably so. Two-term limits were imposed on the Presidency in many African countries specifically to counter any tendency towards dictatorship. After legalizing political parties in Ghana in 1992, former military ruler Jerry Rawlings served two terms as civilian president before stepping down in 2000. In Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo stepped down at the end of his second term in 2007 after a failed attempt to alter the Nigerian Constitution to allow a third term.  In Sierra Leone, Ahmed Tejan Kabba stepped down in 2007 after serving two terms in office and handed power over to current President, Ernest Bai Koroma. In Senegal in 2012 Abdoulaye Wade lost a third-term election bid by a wide margin after changing the Senegalese Constitution, amid street protests, to allow it. As late as 2014, the dictators' retreat appeared to be turning into a rout. Blaise Compaore, in power since 1987, fled Burkina Faso following popular protests over his proposal to amend the Constitution to remove the Presidential two-term limit.

Throughout this period, there was a feeling that the two-term Presidential limit was in Africa to stay, and democracy would2015 Africa Democracy Map eventually prevail everywhere. Suddenly, Africa's dictators are fighting back. Africa observers were surprised when an ECOWAS Heads of State meeting in May, 2015 this year was unable to agree on a proposal to formalize the two-term limit as policy among all ECOWAS members. Opposition reportedly came from two states, Gambia and Togo, which do not have term limits for their Presidency. The need for consensus thus forced ECOWAS policy to be dictated by two of its smallest members, despite the fact that a clear majority of the ECOWAS countries do in fact currently follow democratic practice (see map).

Suddenly in 2015 Africa, the two-term Presidential principle appears to be under attack. Sierra Leone President Ernest Koroma, under the two-term limit due to leave office in 2017, is rumoured to be considering a constitutional amendment to allow him to remain in office following a resolution by the ruling party Youth League calling for "more time" for him. In April this year, Faure Gnassingbe, successor as President to his father, Gnassingbe Eyadema, won election to a third term as President of Togo. In July this year, Pierre Nkururnziza was announced elected to a third term as President of Burundi even though the Burundi Constitution limits Presidents to two terms. And then just last month, a referendum amending the two-term limit in the Congo, Brazzaville, Constitution passed with an announced 92% in favour, clearing the way for President Denis Sasso-Nguesso to run for a third term in 2016.

Is there any merit in the idea of removing two-term limits for the Presidency in Africa? The argument is sometimes advanced that the two-term limit is itself undemocratic, as it deprives the electorate of the choice of a leader who may be capable and genuinely popular. The two-term limit was only imposed in the USA after its war-time leader Franklyn D. Roosevelt won his fourth term in 1945. There is no term limit in the UK or Germany, where Angela Merkel is currently serving her third term. An additional argument against term limits is that they render a sitting leader a lame duck in much of his/her final term and so reduce effectiveness in running the State. So why necessarily should Africa tie itself to a two-term limit?

Under "normal" circumstances, these arguments are not without merit. But the relatively young democracies of Africa have shown that they are fatally drawn to dictatorship. The precise reasons for this would provide rich ground for further study, but we would humbly suggest that it has something to do with the African "big man" syndrome, the traditional reverence for age and the widespread institution of chieftaincy. Rooted in tradition, Africa has a hard time escaping its past.

Modern management theory teaches that one of the key roles of the leader is building a competent leadership team. The benefits of having a strong, capable leadership cadre would seem obviously to outweigh the benefits of a single capable leader. However competent a leader might be, one way or the other he will eventually leave office, and without a strong structure to follow him, deterioration and/or outright collapse is inevitable. There is perhaps no better recent example of this than Ivory Coast, where Houphouet-Boigny ruled for decades over a relatively prosperous nation that quidkly collapsed upon his passing.  There is also an unquantifiable benefit for national stability in having an ex-leader or ex-leaders, having left office peacefully, available in-country to offer advice and help keep the peace. Sierra Leone currently has no statesman of this nature, former Vice-President Solomon Berewa being the closest. Other countries such as Tanzania have several, and are the more stable for it.